In our eight-part series Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven takes apart and puts back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence. The artist Tom Toro illustrates each sentence Dolven chooses.
There are so many ways to pin a sentence down: the completeness of its thought, the correctness of its grammar; its rhetorical purpose, its narrative closure. Does any of them touch its being?
Night after night this message returns, repeated in the flickering bulbs of the sky, raised past us, taken away from us, yet ours over and over until the end that is past truth, the being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them, not ours to own, like a book, but to be with, and sometimes to be without, alone and desperate.
John Ashbery is a poet of sentences. No one writing since Milton has had quite so much syntax at his disposal. “Soonest Mended,” the poem from which this sentence is taken, is composed in lines, which make for another order of punctuation—and they make a difference, as you can see if you read the original. Here, though, I want to set the prosody aside in favor of the prose of Ashbery’s commas, and the way the wandering structure sounds the question of what, after all is said and done, a sentence is. After so many formal queries in this column, after trying out so many different frameworks and idioms, permit me a moment of existential free fall.
But a little form first, just on the way down. Ashbery’s is a running sentence, not periodic, not governed by an overarching syntactic design, but rather additive, tacking on clauses and phrases as it goes. At the start, there is a complete clause, “Night after night the message returns”—everything could stop right there—followed by a succession of participial phrases in apposition, repeating, raising, taking away the message, then reassuring us that it is still ours. Another appositive phrase, “the being of our sentences,” becomes the subject of the second half, though it is not clear whether the actual sentences, or their being, are not ours to own. Some kind of narrative is implicit, as if the returning and repeating and raising were actions happening one after the other. By the end, however, that narrative feeling has dissolved into repetition or even paradox. Here and there along the way, a particular object comes into focus, the flickering stellar bulbs or the book. Mostly, though, the diction is abstract, an idle migration of idioms, and the main work of the sentence is to modulate the mood. Optimism surges as the messages transcend us, drains away as they escape; they are ours, hooray, but not the way a book is, alas; then they are given back to us for “being with,” then taken away again, leaving us alone and desperate.
Some sentences want to end. They are pointedly terse, or their artful suspensions forecast an elegant finish. Not this one. A period could be substituted for almost any of the commas, calling a dignified halt at each juncture, and yet the sentence keeps going, pausing but not stopping, and the mood darkens as it approaches its ultimate limit, as though in fear of what will happen when the period comes, let alone after. This is the being of sentences: solitary and fragile and victim already of their own finitude, the short time they take to speak or read. If only we could possess them like we can possess the book they’re written down in!—but they are always leaving us alone and desperate. Each comma is only a momentary stay of the inevitable execution.
Then again, if the sentence passes, there is still the climate that fosters it. Ashbery’s line is a nod to Wallace Stevens, to “The Poems of our Climate,” a poem that insists, “There would still remain the never-resting mind.” The mind does remain, and New York, too, where Ashbery lived, and the company of poets like James Schuyler and Barbara Guest, and the memory of Frank O’Hara, and the books of Raymond Roussel (one of Ashbery’s favorites), and the poems and prose poems he himself had already written by 1970, all the various weather of his mind’s climate. To say nothing of the next sentence of this very poem: “But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence-sitting raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.” Ashbery’s sentence may, despite its reluctance, be closed from the standpoint of grammar. But it is open from the standpoint of style, which is to say that it bears a family resemblance to so many sentences before and around it and to so many sentences that he, and others who read him, had yet to write. Ashbery is one of those poets with a lifelong gift for sounding like himself. I have always imagined that he wrote not least for the pleasure and relief of discovering that he was still more or less who he was when he made the last sentence, steering his reader, once again, along his distinctive middle way between ecstasy and despair. The closure of a sentence may be a condition for its analysis, and even for its beauty. But its openness is its charisma, its power to beget new sentences like it, to inspire imitators—not least the author himself. No period can foreclose that second life. The true being of a sentence is its style.
This is the final installment of this column. Read earlier entries here.
Jeff Dolven’s poems first appeared in The Paris Review in 2000. He teaches at Princeton University, and his new book, Senses of Style, which looks at the work and lives of Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara, will publish in January.
Tom Toro is an American cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Playboy, The American Bystander, and elsewhere. His book of Trump cartoons, Tiny Hands, is available now through Dock Street Press.